Against that factual background, what lessons can financial advisers learn from this story?
Formalities:Firstly, even with a relatively small estate it pays to have proper legal advice when preparing a will. Ms Leaning’s later and contested document is said to have been prepared by her without any legal advice and to have been witnessed by her neighbour and the neighbour’s son. In principle there’s nothing wrong with this and there are many DIY will kits available online.
However, there are a number of formalities with which every will must comply. It was reported that one challenge to the document was the suggestion that the signature page, which had originally been stapled at the end of the document, had become detached.
To the ordinary man in the street that might not be significant but in the world of wills, this gives rise to the possibility that there were other pages in the document that have also become detached and are now missing.
That gives rise to a risk that those pages provided further instructions and perhaps dispositions to other beneficiaries. On that basis the second document in favour of Mr Guest and his canine cohabitees could be declared invalid. Furthermore, unless there is clear evidence that the original will was revoked, the charities would once again become the beneficiaries of the whole estate.
Challenging the Will: If that happened, then Mr Guest’s only course would be to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
An application can be made by a limited category of family members/dependants as long as they can establish that the will does not make “reasonable financial provision” for them.
What then is “reasonable financial provision”? Unhelpfully, that’s not defined anywhere within the Act and will depend exclusively on the facts of each case.
Litigating these claims is expensive, time consuming and uncertain. By way of example, in March 2017 the Supreme Court handed down judgment in another well publicised claim: Ilott v Blue Cross and Others.
That case arose out of a will prepared in 2002 by Melita Jackson. Mrs Jackson died in July 2004. She had bequeathed virtually her entire estate (£486k) to a number of animal welfare charities and had left nothing at all to her daughter, Mrs Heather Ilott.
The relationship between mother and daughter had been severed in 1978 when Mrs Ilott, then only 17 years of age, secretly left home to live with a boyfriend whom she subsequently married. Unsurprisingly, the elopement did not meet with her mother’s approval and the resulting estrangement continued until Mrs Jackson’s death.